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Fossil fuel companies are among the biggest donors to Google ads that look like search results | Google

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Fossil fuel companies and companies that work closely with them are among the largest funders of ads that look like Google search results, what activists refer to as an example of “endemic greenwashing”.

The Guardian, in collaboration with InfluenceMap, a think tank that tracks polluting industries, analyzed ads for 78 climate-related terms in Google search results.

The results show that more than one in five ads served in the study – more than 1,600 total – were from companies with significant interest in fossil fuels.

Advertisers pay to have their ads appear in the search engine when a user queries certain terms. The ads are attractive to companies because they are very similar to the search results: more than half of the users in a survey in 2020 said they could not see any difference between a paid listing and a normal Google result.

ExxonMobil, Shell, Aramco, McKinsey and Goldman Sachs were among the top 20 advertisers for search terms, while a number of other fossil fuel manufacturers and their donors also ran ads.

Jake Carbone, senior data analyst at InfluenceMap, said, “Google is paying groups with a legitimate interest in continuing to use fossil fuels to influence the resources people get when they try to get educated.

“The oil and gas sector has moved away from challenging the science of climate change and is instead trying to sway the public debate about decarbonization in its favor.”

The advertisements of the oil company Shell – a total of 153 were counted – appeared in 86% of searches for “net zero”. Many made known their promise to become a net-zero company by 2050 and to align with a warming target of 1.5 ° C.

Google ads for the search term Google ads for the search term “Netto Null”. Photo: Google

Shell’s net zero strategy, however, relies heavily on carbon capture and offsetting, according to a Carbon Brief analysis, which says, “Despite its ‘very ambitious’ design … Shell’s vision of a continued role for oil, gas and coal through At the end of the year the century remains essentially the same. “

A Shell spokesperson said, “Shell aims to become a net zero carbon energy company by 2050, in line with society. Our short, medium and long term intensity and absolute targets are in line with the more ambitious 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement. “

Goldman Sachs, which opened nearly $ 19 billion in loans to the fossil fuel industry in 2020, had the third highest number of ads. The bank’s advertisements appeared on nearly six out of ten searches for “renewable energy”, with many underscoring their “ongoing commitment to sustainable finance”.

The advertisements from the consulting firm McKinsey appeared in more than eight out of ten searches for “energy transition” and four out of ten searches for “climate threats”. The ads said, “McKinsey works with customers on innovation and growth that drives sustainability.”

In addition to its work on sustainable investing, the company receives significant revenues from fossil fuel customers. In the past few years McKinsey has advised 43 of the top 100 most polluting companies in the world, according to the New York Times.

A McKinsey spokesperson cited a comment from a managing partner of the company that said, “There is no way we can make emissions reductions without working with these industries to make a quick transition.”

Aramco, the state-owned Saudi oil company that is the world’s largest oil exporter, had 114 advertisements for the keywords “carbon storage”, “carbon capture” and “energy transition”. A number of their advertisements claimed the company was “promoting biodiversity” and “protecting the planet”.

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In collaboration with InfluenceMap, the Guardian has compiled a list of 78 climate-related Google search terms. From November 15, 2021, we searched Google for these keywords at least 19 times on seven days and recorded the ads that appeared in a sample of over 10,000 (10,857) search queries.

The Google searches were all done in London which may have affected the results. The “ad personalization” and “search customization” functions of Google have been deactivated so that the results of the search queries are not influenced by user activity. Google Ads buyers compete for search terms in an auction; The more money you spend, the more likely your ad will appear. Therefore, our dataset contains multiple instances of the same ad.

Companies categorized as follows were considered to have a significant interest in fossil fuels:

  • Companies that have produced, sold or distributed oil, coal or gas
  • Banks, mutual funds, insurance companies, pension funds, etc. that finance or hold significant investments in oil, coal or gas.
  • Professional associations for individuals working in the oil / coal / gas industry
  • Companies that do not produce oil / coal / gas directly but generate significant income from these industries

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Melissa Aronczyk, Associate Professor at Rutgers University, said: “In the US there has been a very concerted effort by public relations agents since at least the 1980s to help polluting companies develop strategies to go ‘green’ at the same time maintain business operations.

“Many of the initiatives companies take are very piecemeal and do not result in long-term or systemic change.”

Johnny White, a lawyer with the environmental group ClientEarth, has called for more regulation of ads placed by polluting industries. “Fossil fuel companies spend millions on incredibly sophisticated advertising campaigns, so it can be very difficult for the public to separate fact from fiction.

“Harmful greenwashing has become endemic – to eradicate it we have to ban all advertising of fossil fuels, just as we do with tobacco.”

The analysis also looked at “snippets” that are not paid for, but are selected as the most relevant result by Google’s algorithm. The Guardian found the excerpt selected for “fracking,” which was linked to the website of an oil and gas lobby group, the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Google snippet for Google snippet for “fracking” Photo: Google

When asked, “Is fracking a public health hazard?” The IPAA site said, “No. Indeed, there is ample evidence that the increased use of natural gas … has improved public health through dramatic improvements in air quality in recent years. “

A year-long investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 concluded that fracking had in some cases damaged drinking water supplies.

In contrast to Facebook, Google does not have a publicly accessible advertising library, so analyzing advertising on the platform is difficult. In the EU and UK, Google only provides comprehensive data on ads that directly mention politicians or a political party or that contain a referendum question.

A Google spokesman said, “We recently introduced a new policy that specifically bans ads promoting climate change denial. This policy applies to all advertisers, including energy companies and financial institutions, and we will block or remove all ads that contain illegal content. “

An ExxonMobil spokesperson said, “ExxonMobil has contributed to the development of climate science for decades and has made its work publicly available. And as the scientific community’s understanding of climate change evolved, ExxonMobil responded accordingly. “

Aramco and Goldman Sachs did not respond to requests for comment.

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